February 22, 2010
In the years when I was still teaching, at the end of a class I might feel let down and miserable to a degree not justified by what I did or didn’t do. The misery lifted and I might even smile when I said to myself, “I bet I can find a precise description of just that feeling in a book in Memorial Library!” In other words, I wasn’t alone. No matter how miserable or happy I am, someone “out there” has not only experienced it but has written it down and published it.
Isn’t this the reward of exposure to the humanities? A knowledge of the books links us to humankind and beyond humankind to the whole of nature. Here is another example–even more personal than the one I have just given. An embarrassment of advanced age is that I have to go to the toilet three, four, even five times a day. The urgencies of my body humiliate me. I see my proper place in the world to be on a swivel chair in my office, not on a porcelain bowl in the men’s room. Then I feel better–much better–when I recall reading somewhere about the digestive challenges of the panda. Do you know that the panda spends about 60 percent of the day eating bamboo and the remaining 40 percent resting and shitting? Not much of an accomplishment, is it? Yet we love the panda as much, if not more, we do the bee.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The humanities don’t just console us in our infirmities. They also persuade, teach, and inspire, and they do so largely through the apt use of words. I think of the early years of my academic career when I, like many young scholars, strove to write obscurely so as to seem profound. Then I read this sentence from the poet Theodore Roethke: “The essence of prose is to perish–that is to say, to be ‘understood.’” And here I was struggling not to be understood! Far from perishing so as to allow reality come through, I thought prose’s calling was to be a celebrity, drawing attention wholly to itself.
As a young academic, I was extremely ambitious. I didn’t just study soils empirically, analyzing their mineral content and such like, I sought to understand their metaphysical foundations! Yes, for example, how to reconcile soil profile with slope profile, when one is taken at right angle to the surface and the other is the surface. I floundered and might never have found my way back to sane research until I came across this piece of sound advice from the sociologist E. J. Urwick. “It may be wise to hitch your wagon to a star, it cannot be wise to hitch it to a nebula, for most of the great goals are very nebulous as well as very far away.”
Work is hard–any line of work–including the academic. What makes academic work different is that it is largely self-driven, and because it is largely self-driven, it permits and even encourages deferment. We are constantly tempted to put things off. Certainly I was so tempted until I heard William James whisper in my ear that “nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” I have, of course, always known this. Who doesn’t? Nevertheless, to be convinced, I needed to hear the words from someone wise.
All of us have felt at some stage in life that we lack something essential to happiness that others have–good looks, happy marriage, vocational success, and such like. George Santayana restores our equanimity by saying, “what we miss may be enjoyed or attained by someone else: why isn’t that just as good? And there is no regret, either, in the sense of wishing the past to return, or missing it: it is quite real enough as it is, there at its own date and place.” Where, other than the humanities, can we get this sort of comfort and wisdom?